Will Your Parachute Open Every Time?

Teaching Less (2)

Wait a minute!  Teaching less is a good thing?

Let’s be careful in what is actually being said here.  Teaching is an EXCELLENT thing to do.  If we didn’t teach adequately our students would not learn sufficiently.  But, what Grant Wiggins is trying to stress is that FEEDBACK is one of the strongest correlates to student success.  And not just a letter grade or percentage, but critical feedback that helps the student learn from their mistakes so that they can focus on personal improvement.

Nobody gets better by just seeing a ‘B’ on their paper, lab report or report card.  What makes us improve our learning is the opportunity to understand what we didn’t fully succeed at, be given an opportunity to refine our learning and perhaps demonstrate our mastery of the topic again.

I remember sitting in a meeting where we were talking about feedback, student mastery of material and grading.  The speaker asked us to step out from our ‘classroom comfort zone’ and think about … parachute packing.

OK.  Why not?

Can parachute

It’s an example that I’ve heard a few times at ‘student assessment’ workshops and how feedback like percentages don’t really tell us very much about how well a student is learning.  You can find multiple versions of the story on-line.  Here’s one from a Grade 8 teacher’s 2013 blog post.

The message is a simple yet important one.  It goes something like this …

Let’s say that you have 2 students learning to pack parachutes.  They are each given 5 parachutes to pack each week for 5 weeks — so a total of 25 parachute packings.  If the parachute is packed correctly they get one point or a ‘pass’.  If it would fail to open properly they get zero points or a ‘fail’.  I’d say that’s an important grading criteria. Here are their scores after the five weeks:

  • Student A     80%     (20/25 points)
  • Student B     72%     (18/25 points)

You need to pick one of the students to pack your chute for your next jump.  Which one do you choose?  Clearly you’d likely prefer someone who scored 100% but that isn’t an option here.

You look like you’re a bit suspicious of the question — that this might be a trick.  Not really.  The scores are legitimate.  However, a percentage really doesn’t tell you if they’ve actually mastered the necessary ‘chute packing’ skills.  If all that you have is the overall percentage from the 5 weeks of learning, you really don’t have enough information to make an informed choice.

What if I gave you a bit more information …

WK 1 WK 2 WK 3 WK 4 WK 5 Course Mark
Student A 4 4 4 4 4 80%
Student B 1 3 4 5 5 72%

Student A is certainly more consistent, but you’re taking a chance that your parachute is one of the four he packed correctly that week — not the one that was packed incorrectly.  He really hasn’t improved at all in the 5 weeks of the course.  He has a 20% failure rate on his parachutes working.

Student B started off with a low score and actually finished with a lower overall “mark” than Student A after 5 weeks.  But, I’d pick him to pack my chute — no question!  The importance of effective feedback, learning from it and demonstrating improved mastery is evident.

So, my choice is Student B.

The message here is that YES, let’s teach our students the necessary skills they will need to be successful.   However, part of that teaching is also providing students with EFFECTIVE FEEDBACK  — feedback that provides useful information on how they can get better at the skill.  Not just a letter grade or percentage.

We GROW as students and people when we are given LICENSE AND TIME TO LEARN FROM OUR MISTAKES and then showcase our improved learning.

After all … we all want that parachute to open!

dog parachuting.jpg

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